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Earthquake in Lake Michigan region raises specter of radioactive waste disaster at Palisades

A 3.8 magnitude earthquake epicentered in northern Illinois, but felt as far away as Michigan across Lake Michigan, serves as a reminder that the high-level radioactive waste dry cask storage facilities at Palisades nuclear power plant remain vulnerable to a catastrophic radioactivity release due to seismic risk. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Midwest region dry cask storage inspector Dr. Ross Landsman warned his agency's top official, 16 years ago now, that Palisades' dry cask storage pad just 100 yards from the Lake Michigan shore is vulnerable to earthquakes: "The casks can either fall into Lake Michigan or be buried in the loose sand because of liquefaction...It is apparent to me that NMSS [NRC's office of Nuclear Materials, Safety, and Safeguards] doesn’t realize the catastrophic consequences of their continued reliance on their current ideology." The high-level radioactive waste within casks buried in sand could dangerously overheat. If water infiltrates casks submerged underwater, there is enough fissile uranium-235 and plutonium-239 in the irradiated nuclear fuel that an inadvertent chain reaction could be sparked; this would make emergency response ultra-hazardous. In either scenario, disastrous radioactivity releases would be possible. Despite this, Dr. Landsman has been entirely ignored by NRC for going on two decades. In 2006, now retired, Dr. Landsman served as expert witness for an environmental coalition, co-led by Beyond Nuclear's Kevin Kamps, demanding that NRC address the fact that not only is Palisades' first, older pad vulnerable to seismic liquefaction, but its second, newer pad is vulnerable to seismic amplification, both in violation of NRC earthquake safety regulations. Unfortunately, as expected, NRC rejected the environmental coalition's and Dr. Landsman's emergency enforcement petition. The coalition then appealed to the federal courts, were again rebuffed by NRC, defended their contentions, but despite their warnings, were ultimately ruled against by the second highest court in the land. Thus, Palisades' high-level radioactive wastes remain vulnerable to a catastrophic release of deadly radioactivity into Lake Michigan -- source of drinking water for tens of millions downstream -- if a large enough earthquake strikes the site.